Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

20. Sofia Coppola’s minimalism reaches new heights in Somewhere, by turns bafflingly simple and simply baffling. Ditching almost any real narrative to speak of (the film is sort of about a famous white movie star (Stephen Dorff) reconnecting with his daughter) means the film can be sometimes ravishing (this includes opening scenes involving in-room pole-dancing and daughter Elle Fanning’s ice-skating, the two curious aligned with Dorff’s gaze), at others meandering. In fact, Dorff’s character does little other than meander, invoking more Vincent Gallo than Antonioni. Ultimately, the sequences that work do so in spades, but one gets the sense that, unlike Coppola’s great Lost in Translation, the parts are not creating a significant whole.

19. Sometimes genre mash-up can be cool. How about when it’s a cover of Visconti, Sirk, and Kubrick rolled into one? All of these immortal filmmakers certainly hold influence on Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, a patriarchal melodrama spanning across several years, concerning sexual infidelity and the shackles of nepotism. If the film were actually about these things more than just placeholders for overstated symbolism and lush cinematography, it would be magnificent. It isn’t that on the whole, yet a stunningly simple, but brilliant credits sequence, calmly evocative scenes, and a consistently steady, forceful tone represent the formal talents of a director who could one day make a great film.

18. Fuck you if you didn’t get Jonah Hex – there, I said it. The film packs more wildly abstract and intelligent visual material into a 10-minute stretch than most films can muster through their entirety. Thematically, this includes a fascinating subtext on individual thought over communal, war-mongering tactics, and lost humanity under nihilistic reign. The credit belongs primarily to scribes Nevaldine/Taylor, whose keen sense of humor, subversive writing style, and masterful thematic structuring are misunderstood as incompetent by those unable to realize their sensibilities. Jimmy Hayward’s compositions are lushly photographed, far more aesthetically sophisticated than the superfluously edited, in-vogue styles of Paul Greengrass and Neil Blomkamp.

17. The Ghost Writer finds Roman Polanski making a tense thriller, more in the vein of his 1970’s brethren Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula, rife with political paranoia and suspicious behaviors, magnificently photographed, and efficiently performed. The film’s themes suit Polanski’s plight over the past 30 years (one must see lead Ewan McGregor’s constant looking over the shoulder as resonant), yet forgetting this meta-textual level, the film still functions suitably enough, though one wishes Polanski may have injected something a bit more odd into the proceedings. This is certainly nowhere near his 1970’s masterpieces (not that it has to be), but as a fairly straightforward political thriller, it’s a superior genre effort.

16. Self-critique is hard to do, but Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give slyly interrogates the charity, guilt, and fears of her upper-middle class Manhattanites rather than merely celebrating them. Not the limousine liberalism one usually expects from the filmmaker, her perceptions and distance from the characters finally enables simultaneous admiration and condemnation, venturing more into the brilliant Whit Stillman’s territory (though not quite there). Catherine Keener anchors the film with an agonizingly complex performance – by turns despicable, admirable, and human. The remainder of the cast completes one of the best ensembles of the year. If only this brand of strong, insightful mainstream filmmaking were more common.

15. To ignore the great work Alain Resnais keeps doing is to show your filmic ignorance – yet that’s what roundly occurred in 2010, the living legend barely able to get critics to review Wild Grass, his playfully whimsical ode to love, cinema, and life. If it feels stilted or even annoyingly precious at times, Resnais has earned the right, and indulging his unique visions are something every filmgoer would be much more enriched by. Not to make it sound like a chore in the least – still experimenting with color scheme, split screen, and character development, Resnais trumps most every young filmmaker with his elegance, grace, and sophistication.

14. Topping Danny Boyle’s needlessly overdone 127 Hours (but not James Franco’s brilliant performance) is Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried, a new classic in independent genre filmmaking. Though Ryan Reynolds doesn’t have the ability to emote the understated humanity of Franco, his more delirious freak-out of a performance matches the film’s anger well, positing his being buried alive in a coffin with an Iraq war fuck-up. Brilliantly, Cortés never leaves the coffin, yet consistently finds ways to deepen both the nightmare and subtext. If one doesn’t buy the political bent wholly, that’s okay since Cortés’s convictions are in the right place, genuinely interested in discussion and tension rather than puerile playtime, unlike Robert Rodriguez’s dreadful Machete. Here’s what a real genre film can be.

13. Floria Sigismondi’s vision of youthful rock-and-rollers transcends the expected diarrhea of clichés by telling her story through a streamlined visual approach, aestheticizing and sexualizing youthful discovery to the point of euphoria, unearthing the true drug that fuels such pursuits: narcissism. The Runaways is one of the keenest explorations of the allure of fame and fortune, and appropriately revisionist for the online age, equating sexual discovery (a menstrual drop of blood opens the film) with self-obsession, the power to control the gaze – yet Sigismondi also acknowledges this power as self-destructive, since that power comes at the expense of each girl’s better human interest. It’s an often subversive film, hindered by a weaker third act, but helped by nice turns from Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Michael Shannon, whose eccentric performances don’t get near the recognition deserved.

12. Art sometimes needs to question its own ontology and no film was more convincing at asking those questions this past year than Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary (?) initially focusing on celebrities of the graffiti underworld, but culminating in something much more massive – perhaps the greatest art show scam of all-time. Wielding kinetic pacing, rigorous interrogations, and baffling characters simultaneously, Exit Through the Gift Shop affirms art’s unpredictability and power, while remaining something of an enigma itself.

11. The beauty of Frozen is not necessarily its minimalism or social critique (though these are certainly prevalent), but a deeply rooted interest in the value of human life, especially when confronted with an incomprehensibly absurd scenario. Adam Green’s rigorously intelligent script provides three characters of varying degrees of likeability, interests, and demeanors. Yet, instead of sketching merely a broad scenario to watch them squirm, Green prizes their lives more, forcing the trio to confront hidden anxieties, desires, and fears. This is independent horror at the top of its game.

10. The antidote to Black Swan’s preference for pain over ironic pleasure, Andrea Arnold’s mesmerizing Fish Tank encapsulate young teen Mia’s (Katie Jarvis) sexual awakening with understated beauty, as her fancying of mum’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) leads to bliss, pleasure, heartbreak, confusion, and edification (not death). It’s easier to be riveted by Aronofsky’s ridiculously lurid passion play, but Arnold’s genuine effort is far more emotionally rewarding, and does not shy away from confronting the euphoria of her young protagonist’s sexuality (something critical darling Winter’s Bone didn’t have the courage to integrate). Fish Tank also stays far enough away from the poverty porn baiting nearly every indie succumbs to these days (Winter’s Bone included), making its narrative intelligent and sophisticated by comparison.

9. The best comedic performance of the year belongs to Jim Carrey, an actor whose brilliance has been overshadowed by the fact that he takes “broader” roles – that should not be a criticism, but a commendation, as in I Love You Phillip Morris, where he gleefully bursts through politically correct, gay stereotypes as Steven Russell, a con artist who ultimately keeps up the cons for his lover, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Not treating its gay characters as precious or fragile, writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have a satirical impulse that transcends facile indie cuteness. By turns mean-spirited, heartfelt, and passionate, it is a multifaceted human comedy, giving a refreshing middle finger to the gutless raunch mass audiences delightfully eat by the spoonful.

8. Only Todd Solondz could be this self-referentially indulgent and get away with it; requiring at least a base knowledge of his 1998 dysfunction epic Happiness in order to grasp the meta-text, Life During Wartime exorcises the demons of politically correct indie cinema with scene after scene of irreverence, compassion, and sardonic ridicule. It’s not only Solondz’s impulses that should be commended, but his control of it, replacing the cast of the former film with entirely new actors, simultaneously exposing the unspoken façade of political rhetoric as self-aggrandizing and, on a microcosmic scale, the aimlessness that such actions instill upon its trapped and tortured characters.

7. Call it silly, annoyingly self-assured, or pretentious if you wish, but Inception is the year’s most spectacular film, bracingly scored by Hanz Zimmer, whose music accompanies Christopher Nolan’s predilection for suits, guns, and slicked-back hair with operatic delirium. In IMAX, Inception is a virtuoso sensory experience, and although one may mourn mainstream cinema’s reversal of prizing narrative and character over spectacle, I would argue Nolan likes both, helped by Leonardo DiCaprio’s fluent, but conflicted Dom Cobb, anchoring both the action and pathos, a genre conceit that grasps at the viscera – thrilling, if unconvincingly cerebral.

6. No film this year displays a greater elegance and sophistication than Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere, deftly traversing the balance between art, political leaders, and hero worship. As revisionist history, the scope is astonishing – punctuated by Filippo Timi’s virtuoso performance as both Benito Mussolini and his son. Not to be outdone, Giovanna Mezzogiorno manages depth and compassion without histrionics as the future dictator’s imprisoned, former wife. Bellocchio’s vision deserves much recognition and appreciation, not slinging political rhetoric, but probing the conceit of “bigger than life” mythologizing as the reason for mass dehumanization.

5. The most compelling film of the year is David Fincher’s The Social Network, an aurally and visually sophisticated explanation of narcissism fulfilled, petty grievances extended, and children at the helm of societal thought, behavior, and mores. Sorkin’s script skimps on some necessary questions (Zuckerberg’s family history, the how’s of Facebook’s monetization) and overplays others (Zuckerberg’s obsession with ex-girlfriend Erica), but what grounds the film’s pathos is a greater sense of loss, transcending the financial disputes that fuel the courtroom battles – that innocence, decency, and reckoning may be forever lost in an age founded upon subterfuge.

4. Mistaken even by many of its enthusiasts as a guilty pleasure par excellence, Piranha 3D is actually a sophisticated genre flick about the bounds of exploitation and the joys (not the monstrosity) of sexual awakening. Alexandre Aja absolves himself of High Tension’s grossly overstated allegory on the dangers of female sexuality with a film that’s fun, cinematic, sexy, scary, and uninhibited – a level of adeptness this ironically detached culture can’t help but condescendingly chuckle at. Generational angst, genre critique, and a central kinetic set-piece make Aja’s film far more than throwaway fun.

3. It’s hard to think of a contemporary film that could rival Ingmar Bergman’s monumental masterpiece Scenes From a Marriage, but Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine belongs in the discussion, certainly on a smaller scale, but just as rigorously tuned into the dynamic of its particular marriage, representing both the highs, lows, and uncertainties in between, culminating in a devastatingly nuanced portrayal of sex, guilt, emotional torture, joy, playfulness, and childishness. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are riveting beyond histrionics, ugly make-up, and mannerisms. They embody a naturalism that would impress John Cassavetes, and although they may not quite have the distinct faces and performance styles belonging to Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands, there’s a beauty, toughness, and proficiency that separates these performers from nearly any other of their generation. Visually, the film is often startlingly precise and exact, especially in a few monochromatic compositions. Relish the humanity.

2. What looked certain to be another smarmy, self-fulfilling bit of pop culture diarrhea a la Zombieland displays a contemporary rarity – wit, compassion, and playfulness. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World encompasses so furiously (and compactly) the eccentricities of its characters purely through film form, a complex examination of adolescent unconscious, anxieties and cultural immersion disguised as product of an euphoric ADD culture. Any perceptive viewer recognizes director Edgar Wright’s blazingly informed satire of, and reverence for, generational obsession, the superficial, (but not) products that develop desires and passion – art as transient and transcendental – revealing deeply felt human relationships (to each other and culture) rather than ass-backwards cynicism. It’s a beautiful film.

1. Nothing I write on this page can either explain or prepare you for Dogtooth, one of the most hilarious, disturbing, freak-out, ingenious movies of the past twenty years. In fact, not since Buñuel has there been a director as proficient and adept in the absurd/surreal as Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos. I’ve never been big on hodgepodge comparisons, but Dogtooth defies immediate quantification, so here goes: If Buñuel had directed Salo as written by Aki Kaurismaki, it may have looked something like Dogtooth, but that shallow, reductive analogy does very little to demonstrate what makes Lanthimos’s film so mesmerizing. Essentially an allegory for the ills of obsessively protecting children (and, by extension, going to fascist-like lengths to prevent their corruption), Dogtooth showcases some of the most batshit sequences in recent memory – but don’t conflate it’s value as merely fucked-up, since Lanthimos builds upon each sequence, culminating in profound understatement, thunderous yet barely heard. Everything remains beneath the surface in Dogtooth, but it’s a film to return to, again and again, for various reasons. Such a lightning bolt of talent and filmmaking does not strike very often.

Best Director:
Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Runner-Up: Giorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth

Best Actor: James Franco, 127 Hours
Runner-Up: Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris & Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine

Best Actress:
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Runner-Up: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Vincere & Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor:
Jerry O’Connell, Piranha 3D
Runner-Up: Vincent Cassell, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actress:
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Runner-Up: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Best Original Screenplay: Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou, Dogtooth
Runner-Up: Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine

Best Adapted Screenplay: Marco Bellocchio, Vincere
Runner-Up: Nevaldine & Taylor, Jonah Hex

Best Cinematography: Eric Gautier, Wild Grass
Runner-Up: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

Best Film Editing:
Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Runner-Up: Lee Smith, Inception

Best Score:
Clint Mansell, Black Swan
Runner-Up: Hanz Zimmer, Inception

Best Ensemble:
The Social Network
Runner-Up: Please Give

Worst Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Runner-Up: The King’s Speech


  1. Yeah, I switched 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' off after 10 mins or so. Far as I can recall she was weaponised with two revolvers she never had during the novel. The only films I've seen of your choice was 'Buried'. It's ending of course was the best part! 'Inception' is an amazing film, and with it's use of sound, man it blew me away. Thanks, man didn't know even know that Jim Carey did a film last year dude. Such are the pitfalls of living in a f**ktard conservative society, ie Australia, a million miles away ...

  2. Glad you found the list useful Alan. I cannot recommend my number one selection - Dogtooth - enough. It is bizarre, challenging, but very funny and insightful. Seek that one out if you can. Not for all preferences, but you will have an intense reaction, be it love or hate.